Five years ago, on the eve of the feast of the Assumption, my grandfather passed from this life. A fresh college graduate, I had spent the previous few months living with my grandparents in the Sunshine State, working, readying my mind and heart for marriage, and reveling in life blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. I also spent that time — and my entire life up to that point — learning from my grandfather what it meant to be a human.
Upon first meeting my grandfather, one would likely not intuit that he was a former collegiate swimmer, a retired FBI agent and the possessor of a truth-defending temper to rival St. Louis de Monfort’s. A man unassuming in stature and, in crowded settings, more withdrawn, my grandfather’s strength was tucked within the recesses of a quiet, humble demeanor. He greeted children in a manner evocative of Pope St. John Paul II, and his eyes always lit at the sight of anything good and beautiful. Though most of his dialogues took place with the Lord far out at sea from the hull of his kayak, when he did speak aloud, everyone within earshot listened. He did not waste words, and he did not mince words. He spoke only the truth, and he always aimed to do so with perfect love. In this way and — even more impactfully — through his quiet acts, he taught me and so many others how to live a life of virtue. These are some of the lessons he, knowingly or unknowingly, taught me.
He taught me that, though the world sees suffering only superficially — as a burden to be quickly medicated or eradicated — it has depths that, when plumbed, become a treasure for the willing soul. Suffering can often sanctify us in ways beyond our comprehension if only we surrender ourselves to the Lord.
My grandfather put flesh on the saying “offer it up.” Nine years before his passing, he received a multiple myeloma diagnosis. Though he fought to live, he did not cling to life, and he certainly did not try to evade suffering. He accepted his cross with heroic peace and humility and offered his suffering as a gift for love.
Shortly before he passed, he handed me a letter he had penned as explanation for why he continued to refuse pain medication. The letter — actually a copy of one he had composed and sent many years prior — was addressed to a “renowned” abortionist who, under the guise of healthcare, had taken the lives of countless innocent babies. My grandfather told the man, who he had never met, that he would be offering his suffering for his conversion and asked that he would repent and begin to lead a life of love. I don’t know (and will likely never know) what fruits may have been born from this sacrifice, but I do know that the Lord does not turn a blind eye to such offerings. He accepts what we give and multiplies it exponentially. Enduring well that which pains us and asking the Lord to bless it will always, always bear fruit.
This life, though riddled with suffering, is overwhelmingly rich in beauty. My grandfather taught me that beauty is necessary, life-giving and not subjective. He would linger on the beach to marvel at a fishing trawler, mobbed by gulls, outlined against a sunset sky. He encouraged and applauded my grandmother’s impressive artistic endeavors. He was quick to share with us excellent pieces of music and literature, tales of humanity at its finest, and truths of the Faith. And, even at the height of his sickness, he drove almost an hour every Sunday to attend a most beautiful liturgy at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception.
Beauty, he showed me, lifted the soul to God and revealed to us, in a way that we can understand, more about our Maker. Without beauty, we would not comprehend or remember our origin, destination or purpose on this earth. And we certainly would not have the impetus or strength to continue on in the battles that life presents. Beauty and its ability to cast our gaze heavenward puts breath into our lungs. Though the modern world tries to offer the narrative that beauty can be forged by our hands, it is actually all a gift from the Divine Artist; anything else is a sad, misguided imitation at best and a deception from the Evil One at worst. Beauty is distinct. It has a name. It is what made my grandfather fall to his knees at the altar rail.
My grandfather was often on his knees. The summer I lived with my grandparents, I frequently came down the stairs in the morning to see him on his knees on the hard tile floor, watching daily Mass on television if he couldn’t go in person. This simple act of kneeling conveyed to me a great truth: our God is king of all and deserving of all reverence. He is not just sovereign within the walls of a church; his sovereignty extends over all the universe. Therefore, our every act should reflect this truth. We should constantly be reverencing the Lord with our actions and speech. We are daughters and sons of the King — princesses and princes in his eternal kingdom — and our ways should speak of this. My grandfather didn’t wear his Sunday best on a walk around the block or on a trip in his kayak, but he did always conduct himself in a way that highlighted that the pinnacle of his days was when he did go before the Lord and receive him in the Eucharist.
My grandfather’s love of silence in particular conveyed this truth. He all but abhorred senseless noise. Sound is, of course, not an ill. It creates symphonies and tells stories and speaks words of love and affection. Noise, though, distracts, confuses and dispels peace. And our world has become quite noisy. Often, my grandfather would retreat from this plague of constant din and find silence. Typically, he found it about five miles out at sea. An outward processor and lover of conversation, I struggled to understand this. But, over time, I have come to learn the beauty of silence. It is where God makes himself known to us. He is not a clamorous God. He is a God of whispers. It is apart from noise, in silence, that we hear him. My grandfather loved the sound of his family’s laughter, conversation that continued long after the dinner plates were cleared, and a philharmonic; but, he treasured silence because of the sweetness of the Lord’s voice.
Because he daily heard the Lord, my grandfather lived a life of joy. Compared to the adventures of his younger years, the joys may have seemed, to the less wise eye, simple or mundane. He showed me that it is in the seemingly simple and mundane that one finds joy, though. Often, while sitting on a bench, enjoying frozen yogurt, or strolling to the beach at sunset or cooking bacon after Sunday Mass, he would quip, “Who lives better than that?” The small pleasures were so wonderful because they were not attempts to fill a void.
My grandfather knew that heaven was open above him, so he didn’t need a single thing on this earth. Because of this, he was able to wholeheartedly enjoy these pleasures as little gifts from a Father who delights in seeing his children revel in the sweetness of life. The fullness of joy comes from union with the Lord, but he sprinkles little joys throughout our days as reminders of the greatest joy to come.
This is what my grandfather lived for: the greatest joy. He spent his days grateful for life on earth, but in eager anticipation of the life to come. He wanted others to be able to share in this hopeful anticipation, and that, I came to understand, is what love is: sharing the truth in a way that brings others to the feet of Love himself. My grandfather evangelized in a multitude of ways: writing letters to the editor on matters that dealt with morality, catechizing his family and friends, and — perhaps my favorite — handing out rosary rings to anyone and everyone. Having received the Good News into his own heart, he wanted to share it with others. Having encountered Love, he wanted others to know Love.
As Catholics, we are blessed to have the example of so many canonized saints to look to as models of lives lived valiantly for Christ. We can also, though, look to those people in our own lives who have led or are leading lives of holiness. Their close presence can inspire us and spur us on to deeper devotion and intimacy with Our Lord. And, hopefully, one day we will be able to join them and the choirs of angels and saints in heaven, forevermore praising Our Lord.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.